Meet John Larsen.
He is almost 80 years old this year and he has been farming the same land for his entire working life.
Some Kingaroy locals call him the miracle farmer. It was a term coined to explain why his crops were always better than everyone else’s.
However, John and many of his neighbours wake each morning to a lingering threat worse than drought, overdrafts, weeds or low commodity prices.
They are fighting for their farms.
John and his wife Audrey are currently opposing a proposal to turn their fertile red soil farm into an open cut coal mine. It is their fourth battle with a resource company in the last ten years.
Neighbouring farms have been bought by a power company for a coal mine that did not proceed. Another neighbouring farm was the trial site for a failed UCG (underground coal gasification) plant.
John has also had to deal with a company undertaking test drilling for bauxite on his property without his consent.
Now the latest threat to his way of life and the land that he loves is a proposal to turn John’s beloved farm into an open cut coal mine in 2018.
He is a member of the local Kingaroy Concerned Citizens Group (KCCG) and has been a part of a campaign to oppose the mine.
But John and Audrey sees themselves as protectors and not as protesters. They love their land, and are humble in the knowledge that it produces sustainable and abundant food.
“Coal is under most of Queensland, but how many farms can grow peanuts, beans, corn, and also a whole host of tropical foods like bananas and avocados around the house?” he said.
His neighbours, Damien and Neralie O’Sullivan, face a similar fate.
They have just developed a new bore to access underground water for their beef herd, but uncertainty around the future of their farm due to the coal mine proposal delayed their decision to spend money on their farm.
“We have had ten years fighting a series of poorly considered resource proposals on our farm and we have pretty much had enough. The uncertainty about the wisdom of outlaying any money for even important things like stock water is always on your mind and you spend a lot of time doing things other than farming.” Damien said.
After the Cougar Energy Underground Coal Gasification (UCG) trial failed over the road from their property in 2010, cattle from O’Sullivan’s farm tested positive for toluene in the months after the gases from the crippled plant escaped.
“We celebrated when the plant closed down but had no idea that they would just change the name of the company to Moreton Resources and try their luck with an open cut coal mine application instead.” Mr O’Sullivan added.
Land use conflict is topical in the South Burnett at the moment.
Just as the local community celebrates the opening of its recreational South Burnett Rail Trail, Moreton Resources plans to have it used for coal trains passing through the main street of local towns.
And just as the local KCCG group celebrates the fertility and beauty of the farms with an art and photography project called 385 Alive, the company continues its plan to convert the rich red soil farms into a coal mine.
The conflict of interest over the best use of the land could not be clearer.
“There has to be a better way to administer land use in this state” says KCCG President and dairy farmer Gary Tessman.
He believes that in the same way the State declares some areas as preferred coal mining zones or precincts, other areas should be declared priority agricultural areas to deter inappropriate mining applications over prime agricultural land.
The mine near Kingaroy is somewhat of an anomaly in that the local Mayor, and both State and Federal MPs have declined to support the proposal due to its poor location. All agree that it is too close to the town of Kingaroy and that it should never be developed on prime agricultural land.
We know that no Queensland coal mine has ever been denied approval based on its EIS but believes this one could be the first. It is difficult to imagine a more unsuitable site for a coal mine.
It is a mere 4.5 kms from Kingaroy and only 1km from the 40 houses at Taabinga Village. It is in the catchment of the town water supply and has no rail line to a port. Surely some form of preliminary assessment or common sense would have steered the company away from such a site.
In this battle, the size and strength of the opponent is not lost on these landholders.
While the company proposing the mine has an entire team of full time experts to develop a mine proposal over several years, the local community has to fully understand it all and mount the opposing case in their spare time without specialist knowledge. This, combined with a 30 day period to respond once the 1000s of pages in an EIS is published, is a formidable task to be completed in out-of-work hours.
In the midst of the monumental task that lies ahead of them, the Larsen, Tessman and O’Sullivans families wake every morning to the reality of what it takes to produce grain, milk and beef and how quickly this could all be taken away from them
Family members need both resilience to live in a state of sustained conflict and a sympathetic ear for spouses that just need to talk about the latest developments one more time.
The cumulative effects of such a prolonged state of uncertainty and anxiety is a scarcely researched topic. Sleeplessness results from living with unresolved tension and protracted issues. Frustration at having to devote scarce quality time to discredit speculative projects, breeds varying degrees of resentment.
For people like the Larsens, Tessmans and O’Sullivans near Kingaroy, living with chronic mining fight fatigue for in excess of ten years is a price you pay for being a farmer.
- John Dalton, Kingaroy Concerned Citizens Group